Dracaena is a very beginner-friendly plant more commonly known as the dragon tree. This is a stiff-leaved and attractive plant that has sword-like leaves with red edges. You’ll get a plant that has slender and narrow grey stems with shiny arching leaves. During the spring months, outdoor Dracaena can develop small white flowers with a very sweet smell, and they’ll eventually develop small yellow berries. You’ll rarely get these berries and flowers on your indoor plant, but they’re easy to maintain.
In outdoor, warm climates, you can expect this tree to grow around 20-feet high, but you generally will keep it pruned to around six feet indoors. The plant has aggressive root systems, and they’re very drought-tolerant. You can grow them as single plants, or it’s possible to grow them as several braided or grouped together, and this in-depth guide will go over everything you need to know to successfully grow and care for Dracaenas.
This is a pretty ornamental plant that thrives in a warm and humid environment, but you can easily replicate this growing environment in your home and grow a huge plant. The multiple colors, spiky leaves, and how hardy it is make this plant popular with beginner gardeners.
The Dracaena has a long and colorful history that dates back centuries. The name comes from the ancient Greek word that refers to a female dragon, and ancient beliefs said that this plant appeared from the blood that was left behind after a massive battle between an elephant and a basilisk. Other people claim that this plant comes from the 16th century explorer, Sir Francis Drake. He supposedly brought some of these plants back with him. They’re commonly called dragon trees, and they have red sap called dragon’s blood. We’ve seen this plant used for magic, alchemy, and medicinal purposes.
During the 17th century, dragon’s blood was a very vital ingredient for Italian violin makers. They used it as a varnish. Today, you can find Dracaena used as an important aspect of many Chinese herbal medicines. It’s commonly used to treat ulcers and for blood clotting because it has strong astringent properties. Many Asian countries think this plant is a good luck to have growing in the yard or home.
European botanists started cultivating this plant when they came to Asia and Africa during the 1700’s and 1800’s. They saw a connection between bush-like plants like masale and the dragon trees, so they started calling them Dracaenas. The 1820’s brought the first full mention of this plant in various horticultural reports, and they turned into a common household plant by the 1800’s.
Popular Types of Dracaena
Although there are hundreds of types of this plant around, there are three major species that people like to turn into houseplants. You will need the correct gardening tools to pull this off, but they’re relatively easy to encourage strong growth if you keep on top of them.
The deep green foliage highlights the bold yellow or reddish-purple hues on the edges of the leaves. This creates a striking plant that looks wonderful in your home or office. The large size is another reason this plant is so popular.
Type One – Dracaena Reflexa
Better known as the pleomele or the song of India, this species is one of the most common. The leaves are the main attraction for this plant, and it makes an extremely striking addition to your houseplants. The leaves are very narrow and pointed, and they have bold yellow striping. They do very well completely indoors, or you can make them thrive by putting them on your patio in a partially-shaded area. If you get the conditions right, this plant will grow and thrive for years.
Type Two – Dracaena Marginata
This species has the nicknames of the Madagascar dragon tree and the red-edge dracaena. This is a larger species of evergreen tree that can easily top 15-feet tall, and it can spread out to an impressive 8-feet wide with the correct care and attention. You’ll be able to enjoy stiff leaves with a reddish-purple hue, and the tree has very slim and curving stalks that act like the plant’s trunk. It’s not hardy to frost, nor can it tolerate low lighting conditions. This makes it an excellent contender for indoor growth. They’re extremely forgiving and very tolerant of drought. So, if you accidentally forget to water this plant a time or two, it’ll survive beautifully.
Type Three – Dracaena Massangeana
The final popular species of Dracaena is also very widely used as an indoor plant, and you may hear it called the corn plant or the mass cane. This plant is relatively inexpensive when you compare it to other houseplants, and it’s one of the most cost-effective Dracaena species available on the market. You’ll get woody, thick canes with this plant, and it showcases very long and strap-like leaves. This plant loves moderate natural lighting, but it will get by with low lighting conditions without a problem. This plant has a very slow growth cycle, so you can put it in a pot and use minimal maintenance over a few years to keep it healthy and growing.
Setting the Optimal Growing Conditions for a Dragon Tree
Since this plant can survive very well with a broad range of temperatures, you’ll see this big plant in homes or offices throughout the United States. You do want to create a mix of well-drained, loamy soil with peat moss and make a point to water it regularly during the active growing season. However, once you get the correct growing conditions, this plant will take off and thrive year after year with minimal maintenance input from you.
You won’t need a lot of fertilizer with this plant. At the most, you should give it a light fertilizer meal at the start of spring, or you can add a controlled-release fertilizer twice a year. Don’t fertilize your plant in winter. If you’ve just planted your dragon tree, you’ll feed them once a week for the first month to give them a nutritional boost and encourage them to take off. You should apply it straight to the soil in the pot, and you want to lightly water it after you apply the fertilizer to encourage it to sink into the roots.
Fertilizer and compost can give your plant a much-needed nutrient boost, and this is especially true when you repot or replant your Dracaena. You don’t have to overload your pot, but you should add at least a handful into the soil.
This plant loves natural lighting, but it’ll do fairly well under artificial grow lights if you absolutely can’t get enough natural sunlight. They love bright light, but they’ll also survive in dimmer lighting. If you put your plant in a lower lighting situation, it’ll slow the growth process way down. The colors on the leaves will be far less intense and look washed-out, and you’ll get smaller leaves. Don’t put it in full sun because it’ll burn. For the best results, put your plant in a partially-shaded spot where it’ll get between three and six hours of sunlight per day. The cooler morning sun is better than the hot afternoon sun.
It’s critical that you pick out a loose, well-drained potting mix with this plant. If you don’t, too much water can collect around the roots and encourage mold or root rot. If you have loamy soil, add a small amount of peat moss in to help with drainage. These plants have extensive root systems, so the plant should have adequate room to develop them and spread out. Depending on the species, you may get one that is imported straight from Hawaii with lava rock. If you do, you can remove around a third of the rock and replace it with your potting soil and peat moss mix.
Temperature and Humidity
Your temperatures should range between 65°F and 78°F throughout the day to create the best environment for this plant. Your nighttime temperatures can go around 10° cooler, but they shouldn’t go much lower than that since this plant is sensitive to cold and frost. Anything lower than 55° will hurt your Dracaena. You should set your plant away from any air conditioners or infrared heaters because these devices can cause large temperature fluctuations that aren’t good for the plant.
You can get away with natural room humidity with this plant, but it does prefer slightly higher humidity levels. It has a rainforest habitat, and it likes the environment to reflect that. You can put your plant in a tray on pebbles with water just below the pebble tops to increase the immediate humidity around the plant if you’re worried about it.
This plant loves hot and humid environments, so they do very well in greenhouses as long as they don’t get direct sunlight. They’ll grow in low light conditions, but they’ll grow much slower.
These plants are very easy to accidentally over-water. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you should always wait until the top half of the soil in the pot is dry to the touch before watering it. If you have the plant in lower lighting conditions, this could work out to watering it once every three weeks. The leaves will turn brown on the tips if you’re watering them too much.
To avoid this, consider lighting misting the leaves themselves and keep the soil lightly damp. Another point to keep in mind is that these plants are extremely sensitive to any fluoride in the water. You can get around this by using purified water, or you can harvest rainwater in your garden and use it to mist your plant. If the plant’s leaves develop yellow edges and turn dark brown, this is a sign that they’re having an issue with fluoride toxicity.
Planting and Repotting Inside
Once you get this plant, you’ll want to move it into a better pot with the perfect soil mix to encourage the aggressive root system and steady growth. You should put your plant in a slightly larger-sized pot than the plant is already in to give it room to spread out. There should be a small layer of small stones or clay pebbles in the bottom to ensure the roots don’t sit in water and rot while enhancing the drainage.
Use a green soil mix or a loamy indoor plant mix with ⅓ peat moss mixed in. If you have compost, you can add a bit in as well for extra nutrients. Backfill in the soil, pat it lightly in place, add a shot of slow-release fertilizer, and water it lightly.
You should only have to repot this plant every two or three years, and you can go longer if you get the slower-growing species. All you have to do is gently extract the plant from the soil, lightly rinse and untangle the roots, and follow the steps listed above to repot it. It should take off and continue growing without any major setbacks, especially if you mimic the plant’s natural environment. You will need to refresh your potting soil every spring, but you can do this by taking out ⅓ of it and replacing it with a new layer of topsoil.
When it’s time to plant or repot your Dracaena, mix a loamy soil and peat moss together before adding it to the pot. This will help ensure the soil will drain well enough to keep your plant happy, and it’ll also have nutrients to feed your plant.
You want to add a layer of gravel, clay pebbles, or small stones to the bottom of the hole you dig for your plant. This hole should be slightly larger than the plant itself, but the roots will do a good job of spreading out on their own. Add a mix of garden soil, soil mix, and sand around your plant. It’ll grow well outside as long as you live in a climate that is warm and the temperature doesn’t dip below 63° of 65°F. If you get the Dracena draco variety, it’s one of the few cold-hardy species available, and it can potentially survive if your temperatures dip between 34° and 35° without harming it. However, if frost touches it, your plant will die.
Pruning Your Dracaena Plants
Since this plant can go to be very tall, you’ll want to prune it. You’ll want garden scissors or pruning shears for this project, but it’s relatively easy. All you have to do to bring your plant back down to manageable levels is to cut off the plant’s top. Do this until they reach your desired height, and let the plant sprout again. You could even root the tops you cut off and give them as gifts to your family and friends. You can prune your plant as often as you like, but it’s generally considered better to do a large pruning session once every few years rather than continuously hack away at them.
You can take cuttings from your plant one of two ways. You can take stem cuttings or top cuttings. Whichever method you choose will root new plants very fast, so which one you choose will be completely up to your own preferences. The Dracaena will survive both of them without worry.
Cuttings from the Top
Taking cuttings from the top is easy to do by simply snipping the top layer away. It might seem scary to remove the whole top part of your plant, but new shoots should start growing very fast from the growth nodes once you cut them. To start, make your cut below the plant’s leaf line and include a few nodes on the plant’s stem. You can transfer these fresh cuttings to a container of loose, moist soil. Another option is to put your cuttings into a vase of clean, purified water. The roots will start to form within a few days, and you should transplant the new cuttings into a larger pot before they take off.
Cuttings from the Stem
The next option is to take cuttings from your plant’s stem. Using the stem to grow a new plant is an excellent way to start getting several plant clones at once. This method may seem very drastic if you’ve never done it before, but your plant will survive it as long as you leave half of the stem intact. To get your stem cuttings, perform the same cutting process you do for the top cuttings. However, you’re going to cut a bigger potion of the stem instead of just one or two leaf node sections.
Take the stem section and cut it into eight-inch portions. Make note of which one is the bottom and which is the top of each piece. Put your newly cut segments into purified water or soil, and put them in a warm location with plenty of indirect sunlight. Check them every few days to see their growth progress.
Both cuttings from the stem and from the top of this plant do very well in water and soil. You can easily clone your plant and have several growing at one time.
Common Problems and Pests
The good news is that Dracaena are one species that is relatively resistant to disease or pest issues. There are a few pests that can wreak havoc on your plant if you don’t cat them fast enough, and they include:
- Mealybugs – Mealybugs are soft white insects that cause white,fuzzy growth to appear on the plant. They slowly suck all of the nutrients away as the infestation gets more severe. They love to attack new growth, and they’ll cause your Dracaena’s leaves to turn yellow and fall off. The plant can eventually develop a sooty mold fungus if it gets too out of hand.
- Spider Mites – Spider mites thrive on the underside of your Dracaena’s leaves, and they are a dusty brown color. They suck the nutrients out of the plants, and they’re invisible to the naked eye. The leaves can change color, start to curl up, and eventually fall off.
There are also a few different diseases that can infect the Dracaena plant. You want to treat them as quickly as possible to avoid the plant dying.
- Root Rot – Root rot is what happens when you overwater your plant. It’s very easy to do with this species, and the roots will turn slimy, black, and die. Signs that your plant is getting too much water are the leaves will turn brown or have yellow streaks, and the leaves will eventually fall away.
- Dead Leaves – While it’s natural for your plant to lose some leaves, it could also be a sign that your plant was touched by frost or the temperature got too cold for it. If you think this is the case, move it back indoors or in a warmer area and see if it perks up.
- Tilted Cane – If your Dracaena starts to tilt to one side, you’re not watering your plant evenly. It could also be growing toward the light. Fix it by propping your plant back up in an upright position and pack the soil around the base. Keep turning it so it gets even sunlight.
If you have cats or dogs around, Dracaena are toxic if they eat them. Both dogs and cats can have excess saliva, vomiting, and lack of appetite. Cats can have dilated pupils if they ingest it. It’s important you keep these plants well out of your pets’ reach to help prevent costly vet bills and accidents.
Dracaena is a wonderful houseplant that is very easy for beginners to grow. It can grow very large with minimal care, and it’s very forgiving. If you get a chance, buy one and try your luck. You never know, you could end up with a huge plant decorating your home or office!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.